Leonardo da Vinci’s Art in a Psychoanalytic Perspective 
Posted on September 20th, 2016

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge     

“Leonardo da Vinci was like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep” Sigmund Freud

The renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci was a man well beyond his time.   He was a genius who demonstrated skills as an architect, engineer, mathematician and a philosopher.  What is so special about Leonardo da Vinci’s art? He studied nature in its finest detail. He made enormous attempts to make his art as true to life as possible. He was a passionate painter who was dedicated in his work sometimes driven by obsessions. His art is everlasting and he expressed motions of the mind in his art. Leonardo’s paintings are full of spiritual reflections.

For centuries da Vinci’s some of the art work has become a mystifying riddle to the people.   According to connoisseur opinion there are hidden messages associated with his art and the speculation led to the birth of the term da vinci code. His paintings can be called as Pictures within Pictures. He used art as a mode of communication. Perhaps some of the puzzles were not known to da Vinci him self since he depicted his art following unconsciously driven motives. A large portion of these distinctive characteristics steamed from his unconscious mind that was deeply analyzed by Dr Sigmund Freud.

The impressive essay written by Sigmund Freud in 1910 titled Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood reveals the inner psyche of this great artist.  Freud’s essay on Leonardo was stupendous and he reconstructed the psychology of a man who was considered as the archetype of the Renaissance period. Freud had speculated on various aspects of Leonardo’s personality. His life has been the subject of study, analysis and speculation. Freud has written the connection between Leonardo’s inner psyche and its role in his art.  Freud examined Leonardo’s life and works closely from a psychological perspective.  Freud largely depicted Leonardo’s life by factual references he had found. He mainly speculated on the two paintings of Leonardo da Vinci the Monna Lisa and Sant’Anna and the Madonna with the child. This analysis gives a detailed reconstruction of Leonardo’s emotional life from his earliest years.

Leonardo   da Vinci was born as the illegitimate son of a notary in 1452. He had an anxious childhood. Frequently little Leonardo was disturbed by a nightmare. He saw a   kite dropped from the sky and hovered over his cradle, its tail feathers brushing his face. Although little is known about Leonardo’s early life there are facts which concur that he was very much attached to his father’s young legal wife Anchiano. Young Leonardo was devastated over untimely death of Anchiano and suffered derivational symptoms. Freud examined the childhood of Leonardo da Vinci, to explain his psychological inclinations toward people who took care of him.

Young Leonardo was doted on by his mother, neglected by his father; hence Freud suggested that he was subjected to so called inordinate Oedipal development in which the subject took his father’s domination of the mother as a “de facto” domination (therefore prohibition on the father’s part).  Freud applied theory on Leonardo’s prodigious genius, his scientific pursuits and the fact that he left so many works unfinished.  For instance one of his magnificent paintings the Madonna Litta   was not completed by Leonardo da Vinci and later one of his pupils did the completion. Freud attributed that partial completion of Madonna is symbolic and it was the unconscious expression of childhood anxiety that was experienced by da Vinci following the deprivation of his mother.

Sigmund Freud interpreted   Leonardo’s childhood memories as fantasies and compares it with mythological information.   He stated that Leonardo identified with his mother unconsciously as an object so he could experience self-love (narcissism) and his antagonism toward his father was specifically described in his art. Freud continues his discussion of the memory of Leonardo’s mother in his analysis of Mona Lisa’s smile. This ambiguous half smile is one of the striking features of the painting. Enigmatic portrait Mona Lisa which is an open text painted during the Italian Renaissance and it could be considered as the most celebrated work of Leonardo.

Freud theorized that Leonardo’s fondness of depicting the Virgin Mary with St Anne which represents two mothers. Leonardo was raised by his blood mother and later   adopted by the wife of his father hence he had two mothers. This very idea was represented in his art.  Freud explained that   depicting the Virgin Mary with St Anne represents protection under two mothers.

Experts claim that androgyny and eroticism manifested in   a number of drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and his famous painting Virgin of the Rocks    demonstrates Leonardo’s interest in nature. Leonardo’s most legendary painting the Last Supper   represents the last meal shared by Jesus with his disciples before his capture and death.  His ability to adequately depict the faces of Christ and Judas were   marvelous. The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by Judas Iscariot   who betrayed the Christ.

Freudian psychobiography of Leonardo da Vinci scrutinizes the life and work of one of the exceptional artists of the human history and for a considerable extent it helps to resolve the mystery of Leonardo da Vinci.

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